Spiritual Practices of Jesus, Catherine J. Wright. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.
Summary: A study of three spiritual practices of Jesus found in Luke’s gospel considering them in the first century context of his readers and the writings of the earliest fathers of the church.
Catherine J. Wright does several things in this book I have not seen before. First, she focuses attention on what the scriptures, and specifically Luke’s gospel have to say about the spiritual practices of Jesus. She does so systematically, looking at all the passages around a particular practice.
Second, she asks the question of how Luke’s earliest readers in the first century would have thought about the particular practice in question. In particular, she keeps in mind the intention of first century biographies not only to inform but also transform the readers. Consideration is given to the regard given the practice in the wider culture and how this might shape their reception of Luke’s account.
Finally, Wright looks at the earliest church fathers and their interpretations and responses to Luke’s gospel. This offers tangible evidence of how the church understood and received these accounts in their setting.
Wright focuses on three practices, each which recur in numerous passages in Luke: simplicity, humility, and prayer. For each, she offers commentary on the text, then discussion of the practice in first century culture, and thirdly, she goes back to the specific texts from the first overview and discusses what the early church fathers had to say about the text. Through all this, she both summarizes the practice of Jesus and draws compelling contemporary applications for the church.
For example, she considers the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and the rich man who approaches Jesus., noting the lack of generosity with both, the unwillingness to be dispossessed of wealth for the care of others, and in the latter’s case, to pursue the kingdom. Wright notes the expectations in both Jewish and Greek literature for the rich to be benefactors. In learning from the fathers, we learn that Chrysostom considered the failure to give alms to the poor to be theft. Basil of Caesarea teaches that “the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in poverty.” Wright then concludes with this trenchant application in her summary:
Perhaps one reason for the emphasis on radical almsgiving is the lens through which early Christians look at wealth. In their opinion, we don’t really own our wealth. It is placed in our care by God so that we may bestow it to those who have less than we do. Therefore, when we spend our wealth on ourselves alone, we are essentially stealing from the poor (and thereby from God). The reverse is also true. When we give to the poor, we show ourselves to be good stewards of the resources God has trusted us with, and we are, in essence, giving to God. This attitude could not be further from the attitude that many Christians in America have today.Catherine J. Wright, p. 63.
She offers challenges around humility as the mark of the early Christian but forgotten in the contemporary church’s quest for power and influence. She notes the practice of continual, fervent prayer by both Jesus and his early followers and the superficial practices that characterize most of our Western churches.
As we hear of the practices of simplicity, humility, and prayer in connection with our Lord, we say, “but of course.” What Wright’s close reading of Luke’s gospel, and consideration of Luke’s earliest readers does, is challenge us to see what this meant for those who called, and call themselves disciples. As Wright traces this out, it becomes apparent that many of us have not looked very closely at Luke’s narrative, not the Lord of whom it is written, if measured by the lack of correspondence between our lives and His. Wright does not bludgeon us with this truth but beckons us to join Luke’s early readers in the embrace of these practices out of love for the one who called us and models and teaches them for us to live into.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.